Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2008

Hotel Hopping Part One (Again): The Iron Horse

By Aisha Motlani
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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog, though unequalled in verity and wit, are entirely my own. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Shepherd Express, nor are they written for the enjoyment of peevish public relations managers.

You’ve heard of a Barfly, but how about a Hotel Hopper – or better still a Lounge Layabout. While researching a recent story about Milwaukee’s Boutique Hotels I discovered the rare pleasure afforded by hotel lobbies (not to mention a flair for pissing off PR people).
Even more than a café, the hotel lounge offers a comfortable environment in which to sip and surf without the sound of grinders and the pungent aroma of espresso assaulting your senses. Even more edifying are the odd collisions between disparate worlds the hotel lobby affords- collisions that to some extent highlight the paradoxes of the post-modern condition. There’s something exclusive but also non-committal about lounging about in a hotel lounge. They can serve as luxuriant, marble clad escape or a less hectic extension of the street. Either way they’re a microcosm of the hotel as a whole – a blend of domesticity and transience, anonymity and surveillance, public forum and private pursuit.
To this end I’ve decided to engage in the pleasant task of hotel-hopping, trying different hotel lounges on for size and investigating what works and what doesn’t. The newly opened Iron Horse is as good a place to start as any.
It occupies a 100-year-old warehouse tucked away in Milwaukee’s still-developing industrial corridor, within site of the Harley Museum. Owned by developer Tim Dixon, it’s the latest breed of “Lifestyle Hotels” run by hotel management company, Desire Hotels. Discounting the Stepfordian connotations the term “lifestyle hotel” conjures up and the hotel’s biker meets businessman theme, much energy has been expended here on creating an environment that appeals to the tastes of a broad but discerning clientele. The newly constructed canopy that darts out eagerly at visitors is an embodiment of this enthusiasm to take the city in the hotel’s wide embrace.
Once inside I was immediately impressed by the tastefulness of the decor. As I spend longer in the space though the almost slavish devotion to the building’s original structure becomes apparent. The designer’s adherence to the rigid configuration of timber columns robs the space of the textural richness of its finishes and furniture. As is often the case in industrial conversions of this kind, the building’s structure becomes something of a focal point used to flaunt the integrity of the space. At the Iron Horse this attitude infuses even the artwork. A piece of art isn’t just hung on a wall. In many respects it becomes the wall (note Chuck Dwyer’s sensual photo murals spanning entire walls in the suites). Like the structure, the art enshrouds us and we are encouraged to pay homage to it.
If I were to pay homage to any part of this building I would start with the firewall that runs all the way down one side of the interior. One could happily do away with much of the internal structure and focus instead on this monolithic, weighty wall. It’s gravity, and its few but deliberate openings, reminds me of the ruins of an old Italian monastery.

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